Thermos Bottle Hammered Down

The most surprising aspect of Duel, Steven Spielberg’s first prominent film and his most important early success, is how little it resembles anything the director has done since. Spielberg has come to define mainstream Hollywood with all of its crass predictability, but this earlier work shows signs of a far more fascinating filmmaker, less interested in special effects and empathetic characters, and more interested in the mindset and imagination of the viewer. As a result, Duel seems far less dated than many other films from 1971, the year of its television debut. Likewise, the film is still surprisingly effective in triggering thrills, even today’s jaded audience.

A promotional poster for the film provides all the synopsis you need: The poster shows a man from behind, in a defensive stance, and a smoky semi truck bearing down on him. It is a duel between a man and a semi-truck. The unique qualities of Duel are not limited to this bizarre premise. Spielberg begins the film in darkness, then backs the camera away from a garage. David Mann (Dennis Weaver) begins his road trip. He backs up his car, pulls up to the stop sign, turns right and is on his way. For the remainder of Duel, the camera remains dangerously close to David, either on his person, in his car, adjacent to his car, or looking elsewhere from the perspective of his car. It is a quirky, but strangely effective means of making Duel a claustrophobic thriller. Add to this David’s increasingly paranoid internal monologues and Spielberg literally puts the viewer in David’s shoes.

David’s troubles start innocently enough as he passes a gas truck on a rural highway. The truck seems to take offense, passing David and then slowing down. David passes the truck again, and the chase begins. This semi-truck follows David up twisty mountain roads, rams him, tries to run him off the road and even kill him while he is outside the car. David never understands what he did wrong or why this is happening and Spielberg builds the film off this ambiguity. David never sees the truck driver’s face, and never knows how or when the truck will strike. Most importantly, he does not know how to make the truck stop its unrelenting assault.

Most modern thrillers strive to make both the hunter and the hunted understandable characters. In films today, the stress is on empathy. In Duel, suspense is generated by the very lack of empathy. David is in a futile position. He is being chased, but has no power over his pursuer. He wants to reason with his adversary, but the truck seems to exist only to kill him. By tying David’s hands, Spielberg is able to create a truly fresh and unpredictable experience.

Of course, the film is not without its nods to traditional elements of suspense, such as an endangered school bus and a car breakdown. There is also a character imbalance that arises due to Duel‘s style. In stripping down the story to one man and one machine, David never achieves the depth and dimension that would allow us to empathize with him on a more nuanced level. This raw approach, which some may find exhausting, tends to focus our attention on the central conflict of the film, to the exclusion of other considerations.

Spielberg deserves credit, though, for his willingness to abandon conventional narrative. His aggressive camerawork makes the chase feel fast, alive, and terrifyingly real, and his determination in presenting David’s perspective is successful at sustaining the film’s tension. For that reason alone, Duel is worth seeing. It is not standard filmmaking. It takes chances, and implicates the audience as participants in the story rather than passive voyeurs.

Duel shows Oct. 25 and 26 at the Oak Street Cinema, (612) 331-3134.